A Matter of Latitude #BookTour Wrap Up

A Matter of Latitude Book Tour

There were thirty stops on this tour, with twenty-two reviews, all of them filled with praise. No one made these reviewers say what they have, which makes this a tour worth celebrating. Below are quoted extracts from the tour. My hat is off to tour host Rachel Gilbey of Rachel’s Random Resources. She is efficient, prompt and incredibly well-organised. And a big thank you to the bloggers!

Tenesar

Book Tour Review Highlights

“This book in set in Lanzarote and the author paints a beautiful description of the island.” The Divine Write

“Not only a mystery, but a great drama about corruption set in a lovely island…This story is thoughtful and emotional and is telling about themes like corruption, ecology and the characters have depth and as always the atmospheric setting is beautiful…” Fany Van Hemelen

“This is a great read, a proper whodunnit based on corruption in what most of us will consider the idyll of Lanzarote. The story is told in first person, with alternating viewpoints from married couple Paula & Celestino (every now and then a chapter creeps in told from the viewpoint of Richard, an author wanting to write a captivating thriller – a genius move, if you ask me!)

The web of corruption is gradually revealed, and Celestino’s “disappearance” is only the start. (By disappearance, read: being forced off the road, over a cliff, hunted by a rabid dog and wanted by those whose fraudulent and corrupt methods he seeks to expose).

The conclusion will keep the reader guessing on many points. Will Celestino return to his family safely? How did those paintings end up in such strange locations? Whose body did the author find? So many questions, but all nicely tied up at the end. I can thoroughly recommend this book to lovers of a good mystery.” – Just 4 My Books

“So this is the second book that I have read from Isobel Blackthorn and I still can’t decide which book I liked best! This was a really intriguing mystery/thriller and while quite slow paced it kept you hooked from the beginning….The character development for both Paula and Celestino was great and I really enjoyed watching it progress as the book did. There was a few great twists and turns and I was really excited to see how it ended. Will most definitely be keeping my eye out for the next Isobel Blackthorn book!” NZFMNBlog

“As someone who has enjoyed holidays in the Canary Islands for many years I just couldn’t resist reading this book – and it gives a totally different take on life there! If you thought Sicily was the only island purported to have mafia, think again as they appear to be front and central in the Lanzarote based thriller!

This is an engaging, enthralling story of fighting against corruption in a closely knit island community. It involves plenty of secrets, danger, mystery and suspense to keep you turning the pages right to the very end. It is a story where you’re never quite certain about just who is trustworthy and who is corrupt. It is also a tale of romance as Paula strives to uncover just what has happened to her husband – and why. I found it a fascinating story and will definitely be looking out for more by this talented author in future!” – Splashes into Books

“Another beautiful written tale about the Spanish island and another excellent mystery from Isobel Blackthorn. One of the things I enjoyed about this and a previous one I read (Clarissa’s Warning) is the incomer to the island that is now the place she sees as home. I speak no Spanish and so these characters would be me trying to settle on the island and so they speak to me in a way; the women from elsewhere struggling to fit in and learn the language. That’s hard enough but when you throw in trying to solve the disappearance of her husband then it becomes and even more difficult task and this is so wonderfully woven into the story.

The mystery element of the story kept me guessing to the end and I was fascinated by the corruption angle as it’s something I know nothing about. The author keeps up the suspense all the way through to the end. It’s a great book and as before now I really want a holiday!” Kirk72

“What is always noticeable about Isobel Blackthorn’s writing is the amount of dedication she puts into bringing the culture of her locations to the forefront. In both Clarissa’s Warning as well as A Matter of Latitude, I cannot help but admire her efforts to respect the identity of the locations where she sets her story.

The beauty of A Matter of Latitude is in the use of two prominent and distinctive voices in the story. That of Paula and Celestino….An exciting thriller that has many layers. It is definitely worth a read.” (as is this review! Check it out!)  Trails of Tales

“I’ve really become a fan of Isobel Blackthorn’s writing. She is an incredibly gifted mystery writer and A Matter of Latitude just proves that more. The mystery in this novel is so compelling and keeps you guessing all the way to the end. I love that. I really am not a fan when a reveal comes to quickly and that isn’t an issue at all here. Love this story! The characters feel real, which made me nervous for them. I highly recommend checking this one out!” Jessica Belmont

“Matter of Latitude is a slow-paced mystery thriller, with wonderful descriptions of the idyllic setting in Lanzarote…capturing the atmosphere and culture of the island….a fascinating read with a strong sense of culture….”  Orlando Books Blog

“My first read by Isobel and one I really enjoyed. Having a passing acquaintance with Lanzarote and recognising a lot of place names it made it more real for me.

A fast paced read. Crisp, fresh prose and an insight of Lanzarote away from the tourist resorts. This book will have you second guessing yourself as to who the culprit is! Red herrings galore and while not a gruesome book it is not as cosy as I thought. Art, corruption, murder and sunny Lanzarote. What more can you want?  A good read I recommend to you all.” BertyBoy123

“I really enjoyed the way Blackthorn combined suspense with an authentic feel for the surroundings and the native inhabitants. The struggle of ex-pats to fit in, despite loving the country they have adopted. You can live in a foreign country, speak the language fluently, adapt to the country and new culture, and yet many decades after living there still be considered an outsider or the foreign person.

The story starts with the attempt on Celestino’s life, and I will admit for a moment I thought I was in a post-apocalyptic plot. The beginning of the book really set the stage, even if it threw me for a minute. Meanwhile his wife and child are waiting for him to turn up, and when he doesn’t Paula starts to investigate his disappearance.

I thought the subtle pressure pot plot of the paintings was an extremely interesting way to go about this storyline. The guilty know exactly what is staring them in the face, hence the reactions, but it takes a while for the meaning of the pictures to sink in for others.

At the heart of this plot is the corruption that allows companies and people to profit off the destruction of our environment, but instead of going for other more well-known industries who are guilty of this, the author shows us how corrupt works at a lower level.

The kind the working man can see and is dragged into, albeit inadvertently. The real estate industry is highly exposed to corruption. It is a way to launder money and evade taxes, and on a more fundamental level it exposes the environment and thus humans, to an even greater risk. When land, fields, property and houses are gained by fraudulent means and sold on to developers.

Bought under false pretences, with the sellers pass on property on the basis of it not ruining or the buyers changing the environment. To do so these buyers have to be working hand in hand with the local and sometimes national government departments to get planning permissions. The corruption flows deep and steady.

It’s an environmental thriller about corruption combined with the eccentricities of expats.” (quoted in full) – Cheryl MM Book Blog

This is a thoughtful and emotional work, that kept me absorbed from beginning to end. Recommended.” Lis Carey’s Library

A Matter of Latitude is a mystery that also highlights the corruption and the destructive influence of tourism on the small island. The writing captures the characters relationships to each other and the idyllic setting of Lanzarote. An interesting read that kept me guessing.” – Rainnes

“All in all, this will be an awesome next read for anyone who loves an insightful, interesting look into relationships, and how differently we can all see things. It’s also for anyone who loves a mystery… This is also for anyone who loves a novel where the author has obviously put work into the setting, and the lore. I’d say this would be perfect to enjoy on your next holiday on the beach or wrapped up cosy in front of the fire if you’re staying in the UK this summer.” Vain Radical

“As I mentioned I have read previous work by this author and I knew that the story would be descriptive, where the scenery was as important as the story and I was not disappointed. As you follow the mystery, you are introduced to some amazing scenery and highlighted throughout are important landmarks to the country…Whilst this is a mystery, there is also an insight to how money and corruption is spoiling the landscape and whilst places rely on tourism, it shows what damage it is causing. Another good mystery that will keep you reading to find out that will happen next.” Terror Tree

“This is the first book that I have read by the author, and I am looking forward to reading more by her…The author paints a perfect picture with her descriptions of the scenery. Making me feel like I must give this place ago in the future… I think anyone who loves mystery novels will enjoy it.” – Bakers Not So Secret

“I really like this story, I thought it was well written and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  I have been a fan of this author’s works for a while now and this is another fabulous book by her!

I thought that the setting for the book was great and the author did an excellent job with the descriptions in the book as at times I really felt as though I was there with the characters, the author did a great job of drawing me in to the story and I found it was one I needed to carry on reading.  The plot was compelling and I wanted to find out how the mystery would all end!

I loved the different characters and I thought that the storyline was great – highly recommended!” Donna’s Book Blog

“Well wasn’t this a nice intense little journey!…It is interesting to see the struggle of making a life as an ex-pat, on this gorgeous island, something that may still affect me in the future, so this lifestyle was something I was interested in learning more about. The struggle of not being accepted is a fear I think most people have and so to be abroad with a missing husband is doubly scary!…I have previously enjoyed Clarissa’s Warning, also set in Lanzarote, and Isobel’s writing where the scenery and backdrop take a life of their own. This was no different, the imagery used could have you sitting in the sun, soaking the ray of Lanzarote. I wish I was, less the hit and run.” Zooloo’s Book Diary

“A Matter of Latitude is an intriguing, suspenseful novel that weaves together modern global issues. The opening scene is an impressive attention-grab that keeps you turning pages for a very long time. The characters are interesting. I particularly enjoyed the focus on the politics of tourism. Having lived in the Dominican Republic, I identified with many of the issues, as well as the hypocrisy of ex-pats complaining about it. The novel sags a little in the middle and the character POV isn’t very distinctive, making changes in character voice a little hard to follow. However, once I got in the flow, I could follow the plot even if I wasn’t sure who was telling the story for a few paragraphs. Overall, this was a good suspense novel that gave me plenty of thinks.” Author Becca McCullough

I read and really enjoyed Clarissa’s warning and was very excited to see what Isobel Blackthorn would come up with next. I was ensnared by this mystery and kept guessing until the very end. I really enjoy Isobel’s books and can’t wait to dig into another one soon.” – J Bronder Book Reviews

“A Matter of Latitude shows Lanzarote in a light I’ve never seen before. First, in terms of imagery. As a tourist, I never visited the north of the island and it was interesting to read about the daily life of locals. Secondly, was through the tropical storm that occurs at the beginning of the story. The ignorant part of me never imagined that the island could have terrible weather like that, nor did I ever consider how it would affect local life.

However, it was the commentary on Lanzarote’s politics that opened my eyes the most. The author is actually a resident of the island for the insight into corruption was detailed. It backhanders politicians are taking from businessmen who want to illegally cash in from the tourism industry are nothing new in comparison to the rest of the world but are shocking just the same. The fact that much of the available funding goes to non-natives shows that politics is everywhere in the world, even on small, magical islands. Also, the heavy focus on the negative effects of tourism on the island made me consider my trips there from another point of view.” – Joyful Antidotes

Visit the A Matter of Latitude reviews page for more reviews

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Long gone the old ways …

As any anthropologist will tell you, the old ways of indigenous cultures the world over are always tramped on in the name of progress. Some are decimated, wiped from the earth like unwanted crumbs. Others allowed to exist on the fringes, tolerated, ignored and oppressed all at once. Then there are smaller cultures absorbed into a larger dominant culture, seeping into language and custom. And then there are those wiped away by the dishrag of colonisation, only to be resurrected as curiosities for the edification of tourism.

Lanzaroteview of Los Helechos through our front door

Here on Lanzarote, the indigenous people, the Conojeros, blended with their colonisers, through marriage, through birth. A new sort of traditional way of life, Catholicised, yet still seated in the old ways, endured for centuries. It was a culture of survival and resilience in brutal conditions. Here, dry land farming and ingenious water capture techniques kept a small population of about a few thousand from starvation.

LanzaroteAn alcogida

Swathes of the lower slopes of volcanoes were smeared with concrete (alcogidas), funnelling water into underground water tanks (aljibes); large fresh water ponds (maretas) were built along with wells and dams; in the 1920s, tunnels were gouged into the cliff of El Risco to access the water in the water galleries of the Famara massif; roofs of dwellings and patios built high, were designed to channel water into farmhouse aljibes – the people went to ingenious lengths to capture what little rain there was.

Up until the 1960s and beyond, farmers terraced the mountainsides right to the top to capture any water should it rain, creating moist micro-environments along the stone wall edge. The terraces also took advantage of the moisture provided by morning mist.

LanzaroteMaize growing in little cinder pits

The Conojeros were a people accustomed to breathtaking views, at ease in the wind, strong enough at times to knock you over.

The people built their farmhouses strategically, the north facing wall windowless, rooms inside facing an interior courtyard. Farmers lived alongside their animals. They grew what they could, hardy plants able to tolerate high amounts of wind. For a long time only two villages existed, Teguise and Haria, the other villages were more like localities where a few farmhouses, spread well apart, took advantage of a valley, a mountainside, a plain.

Fish were plentiful and a small fishing industry grew up around Arrecife. Some farmers grew prickly pear for cochineal. Salt works providing another source of income for a sparse economy.

In the 1960s up sprang a hotel. And then another …

YaizaCamel sculptures on a roundabout in Yaiza.

Now, the tourists can see the old ways, as displayed in museums courtesy of CACT (the local government’s Centre for Arts, Culture and Tourism). Or they can visit the alcogidas, now in disrepair, or poke their heads down an abandoned aljibe, or well – the water below polluted by effluent and no longer safe to drink, or check out the dam at Mala, the wall now cracked and leaking, or puzzle over the site of the grand mareta at Teguise, and witness the erosion of the mountainsides where the terraces are crumbling away.

The government knows it has a problem. Residents are entitled to have 10,000 square metres of land to farm as they wish, with access to cheap water from the desal plants – but the young are not that interested.

You can still see the old farmers at work. Up in the north there are many small farms run by the old people. Little fields of black planted up with neat rows of maize, and not a weed in sight. A farmer harvesting potatoes by hand, his wheelbarrow nearby. They still farm right to the mountaintops and the cliff edge. It’s a privilege to behold.

Haria LanzaroteThe mother volcano, La Corona, as seen from our garden.

I am glad I decided to write a sequel to The Drago Tree. I want to be taken deeper into the story of this island. And the sequel will necessitate my return. For now, as our time here draws to a close, I feel just as Ann felt at the end of her holiday, still in awe of my surroundings, wanting to celebrate the traditions and mourn their passing, at odds with the very tourist industry that has allowed my easy passage to Lanzarote’s shores.

The fire mountains

What can be said about driving down a narrow road carved through a lava plain, a road that goes on and on and on? The basalt that covers the land in every direction, thick, crusty, alive with lichen. Volcanoes or calderas 500 metres high and about 1 or 2 kilometres in diameter, rising up like cone-shaped boils, some black, others brown or red. Then there are those calderas burst open, serrated at the rim, splayed where their lava spilled to scour the land.

Timanfaya

Everywhere you look on the island, there they are, some ancient, some young, the roads on Lanzarote coursing paths between.

Lanzarote volcano

The eruptions of Timanfaya that took place in the mid 1700s and lasted for 6 years, have resulted in a landscape not of this world. A spreading mass of impenetrable rock, about 15 kilometres wide and long.

Lanzarote lava

These volcanoes emerged in fissures in the land, once a wide plain perfect for grazing. Fissures bleeding rock, cleaving open as the pressure of the volcanoes beneath forced their way above ground. This is what I have read and imagine, a primordial groaning, perhaps deafening, definitely terrifying, apocalyptic. Livestock asphyxiated, fish boiled alive, the ocean steaming, the island showered with volcanic ash and smoke. You have to know all this, to appreciate the place as it is now. But it is still impossible to take in.

The speed limit of 50 kmh is too fast. We crawled along, fascinated, not wanting to reach the end of the road.

We went to where the lava met the ocean. The road snaking along, embedded in the lava, right beside the water’s edge.

Los Helechos

We parked at Los Hervidores, a site of extraordinary beauty, where narrow basalt paths have been created to allow tourists to get close and see that meeting of rock and water. The basalt is many metres thick, chunky, descending in a vertical cliff. The ocean swells and surges, blue on black, sending forth its spume. There are holes in the lava, like wells, places to get soaked when the ocean is angry.

No one speaks. The wind, that other element, blows and blows. You either get used to it, or you leave Lanzarote behind for another clime. I love this meeting of the elements, all of them present, in the wind, the ocean, the rock born of fire. Lanzarote is a powerful place, unspoiled, a place to be revered. And as Ann found in The Drago Tree, every tourist slips into reverence in the face of such a setting.

Nothing has changed…

Before I came here I was informed by one and all that Lanzarote had changed in the last twenty-six years, changed dramatically, for better or worse who can say. When I landed and saw the development, the mass of white cubes where once was rocky terrain, I had agreed, and when we headed north to the farmhouse we had rented for the 18 days, it was with some trepidation in my heart.

My companion and publisher Michelle was seeing all for the very first time. And I have witnessed her reactions, her awe, her growing affection for the island. With a smile.

Puerto CaleroMichelle Lovi, taken as we ambled along the strip of expensive designer boutiques of Puerto Calero.

For me, the north of the island – about 7 km long and 5 wide – is my old stomping ground. Every village and every road familiar. But I’d forgotten the three dimensionality, the way the mountains and volcanoes loom, the way the old crusty lava dominates. I’d forgotten the atmosphere, at once friendly yet private, closed. For millennia the people here have farmed this land. They’ve terraced the mountainsides as high as they dare to trap the water flow, on the odd occasions it rains. The way they’ve plastered slopes with a lime wash, and funnelled that water into underground water tanks (aljibes). The use they’ve made of the basalt rock and the volcanic cinders (picon), as wind break and mulch.

LanzaroteAnother view of La Corona taken fom our farmhouse.

Despite the explosion of tourism which now forms about 90% of the island’s economy, the old farmers can still be found, tilling their land. Not as many as I recall, and certainly not as many as fifty years ago, but some cling to the old ways, some see sense in the dry land farming techniques their ancestors created.

Not much development has occurred in the north. The villages are much the same, a mix of smart new villas, old run down farmhouses, ruins and vacant blocks. A few farmhouses here and there on the land around. The restaurants cater for the people more than tourists. The shops are few and largely invisible.

So, what has changed? My answer is simple. Nothing. Unless I reduce change to a mere matter of multiplication. The population has doubled. Expats from many nations comprise about 30%. Many from Latin America. Consequently, there are a lot more houses. Tourism has boomed. Consequently, there are a lot more hotels and apartments. The roads are wider and there are roundabouts everywhere. Supermarkets and petrol stations abound. Cyclists from La Santa, athletic types wearing the correct gear, hog the roads.

There is definitely a lot more money around, going into the pockets of some, and not the many.

And that’s it.

For me, Lanzarote is the same as it ever was. There is the same north/south divide, as if those choosing the south, where almost all the development has occurred, overshadowed by the rugged dry peaks of Los Ajaches, the young calderas of Timanfaya, a landscape conjuring a certain pioneering spirit in the soul, of the Wild West perhaps, somewhere on the edge, pervades the collective psyche.

imageA small creation by indigenous artist Domingo Diaz Barrios

Those choosing the north are influenced by the softer greener peaks of the Famara massif, drawing on the comfort of its sheltered valleys, the secret of the massif, its dramatic western cliff, always hidden from view. Here the artists and artesans live, here the politics of the Left can be found, here the traditions of old are honoured, championed, preserved. The old German bakery with its sourdoughs and ryes, still sells at the markets. The French crepe stall is also still trading. Little moments in The Drago Tree that I’d inserted from memory, suddenly made real. Along with the ceramicists, painters, jewellery makers, all still here…

imageA small work by indigenous artist Domino Diaz Barrios

In a restaurant in Arrieta, down on the waterfront, we were introduced to a desert made from Gofio (toasted maize flour), ground almonds, sugar (not much) and cream. It’s a children’s desert, made in large batches. I had the idea of adding Brandy to the mix to create an adult version. It turned out to be so good we went back yesterday for more! Simple pleasures. How we like it.

For me, nothing has changed. The tiers of locals, Spanish and ‘the strangers’ from other lands exist in much the same way as they did when I was last here. The lumbering edifice of Spanish bureaucracy is more or less the same. Opportunistic ‘fat cat’ businessmen wheeling and dealing, greasing the hands of officials with brown envelopes – how is that any different to anywhere else? And the easy going, accepting, tolerant locals prepared to make space for the temporary colonisation that is tourism, mirrors the attitude adopted by their ancestors of millennia past, in the face of conquest and piratical attack. This, after all, is an island accustomed to invasion.

Shifting perspectives

Day 6 and my awe and delight at having returned are replaced by an acute awareness. Here are some of my observations.

Lanzarote is an island of contrasts. The everyday lives of the locals, with their tight knit family networks, their lives lived behind closed doors, and the tourists. Like almost all tourist destinations where the industry has planted itself in amongst a local culture and boomed, the people and their traditions, their culture, seems squeezed aside. At times tourism manifests like a sycamore in a foreign land, a eucalypt in Africa, a cane toad, a feral cat. Tourism, in essence temporary migration, fostered and serviced by a corporate edifice with no conscience.

Manrique Tahiche

I wonder, do the locals here hide? I would hide. I would be pleased the windows of my house faced an interior courtyard and not the street outside. For the island feels overrun. Only in the backstreets of the remotest villages, or the suburbs of the larger towns, can the people escape the invasion. The roads are busy, and anywhere remote is frequented by the more adventurous tourist, especially the cyclist.

It’s an impossible situation, on a small island formerly poor with a struggling economy, a backwater passed over in favour of it’s more stately sisters. Now the economy is dominated by tourism, and, just like Ann observed in The Drago Tree, there is no going back to the old days.

image

Thankfully on Lanzarote much care has been taken to preserve the island’s natural beauty spots. The malpais (lava) making it difficult to develop large areas, especially in the north. And the artist, architect and ecologist Cesar Manrique set an example of how to cater to tourists without ruining the environment, one followed by many, those respecting the island’s status as a biosphere reserve.

Michelle and I have spent the last few days witnessing the tourist-local dynamic. On remote, winding lanes, we’ve been almost side swiped by cyclists riding two or three abreast. We’ve walked the gritty paths in the island’s hidden corners, only to find others passing us, heading off and up and round and every which way.

We’ve hung out in a bar in the main drag of one of the island’s quieter tourist strips, and spoken with a group of English expats, all of them warm and friendly. They are aspiring writers, and I was giving a talk. I was one of them, in my heart the same desire to live on Lanzarote. I can’t criticise their wish.

We’ve hung out in restaurants in the north frequented by locals and a few tourists, and we’ve enjoyed the exceptional service, the generosity.

We’ve walked through Manrique’s extraordinary house in Tahiche, created in a lava tube accessed by several small jameos (holes in the lava). An artist inspired by Gaudi and Picasso, his creative impulse evident in every corner.

We’ve been to the artesan market in Haria, and wandered around the backstreets, passing couples also wandering around. I was showing Michelle where I used to live. And we were on the hunt for an old friend, Domingo.

image

We found him in his house on the edge of the village. I hadn’t seen him for twenty-six years but he’s the same. And our affinity for each other’s company was just as I recalled.

image

For the first time since we arrived, I was forced to speak only Spanish. We were talking about the past, about our lives, about the future. How I could live here again. With a good internet connection I most certainly could. And then, what would I be? An expat, an English-born Australian author championing the values, the hopes, the dreams of others. A stranger.

No. I’ll have to leave the characters I created in The Drago Tree to live that life on my behalf.

Picking up the breadcrumbs

Yesterday we took a tour of the island’s north, where the malpais (bad land) fans to the coast, the legacy of eruptions of a chain of volcanos about 5,000 years ago, two of which form the view from our farmhouse, to the west and the north. It is the route Ann took in the first chapter of The Drago Tree, only in reverse.

We set off, heading north to Ye, passing through a narrow valley between La Corona, the largest volcano in the chain, and the rounded peaks of the massif. The road is narrow and edged with low dry stone walls. Beyond, the fields of black were alive with euphorbias, the lichens on the rocks bright splodges of white, yellow and orange. Wild grasses and flowers everywhere, the result of recent rain. Usually, there is little green save what the farmers plant and tend.

Orzola

Ye is the same as I recall. A tiny village forgotten by the developers. A string of farmhouses, a few ruins, paradise for someone like me.

We reached an intersection and headed right, skirting La Corona, the sloping plain to the ocean coated in a lava river, onces a tumbling fury, now a landscape of rugged basalt. For 6 kilometres we drove, taking the narrow lane to Orzola, twisting down between the rock, feeling the weight of it. A primordial scene, vast pillars of basalt protruding from the mass, nature’s standing stones. Everywhere a dance of colour, the lichens and euphorbias that have secured their grip on the landscape burdgeoning. The whole a sight at once painterly and alien.

And far more impressive than I recalled. No wonder Ann drove slowly, ‘consumed by what she saw.’

We arrived at the small fishing village of Orzola, which seems today to survive on passing trade to fill its string of restaurants, as tourists take the ferry to the island of La Graciosa nearby.

Orzola

We parked beside a restaurant overlooking the harbour and took a short walk around the block. It was as if I had entered my only story, for Ann had been here, had gazed at the mountains and the cliff, had pointed out features to her companion, just as I was doing with Michelle.

Orzola

And like Ann, we didn’t hang around. Instead, we headed to a remote beach to the west of Orzola, sandwiched by the cliff of El Risco. We pulled up halfway along a narrow track and walked the rest of the way. It was a walk like no other, each step bringing us closer to the barren massif, rising steeply, about 400 metres high, baring striations of rock, the jagged razorback of El Risco silhoutted against the sky, the whole a vast wall. The beach itself arcs to the cliff base, the creamy white sand strewn with basalt pebbles of all sizes. We stood in awe watching couples scattered here and there as they also stood in awe. Two guys were ignoring the warning signs and out on surfboards.

Walking to the car was strange. I wanted to walk backwards, to watch the cliff recede a little with each step. As if to say goodbye.

From Orzola we took the coast road to Arrieta, carved along the fringe of the lava flow. Small pebble strewn beaches appeared here and there. Beaches not for swimmers. For paddlers. For those wanting to stand and stare, at the ocean, the malpais, La Corona and the massif. For hours.

It’s a shared sentiment. Where I recalled when I was last here no human life other than me, there were cars and people. Not many. Not an amount to disturb. But to be thoroughly alone would mean either luck or a trek into the harsh rock of the malpais.

We found a small car park at one beach and stopped briefly, and walked to the shore, and I found a small pebble, the size of a bean, and pocketed it. I was being Ann, for she had done the same. It was as if I was walking in her footsteps, a bizarre feeling.

Orzola

We completed our adventure with lunch beside the little wharf in Arrieta, choosing a restaurant with Spanish-speaking diners. We didn’t speak much. Both of us watched the ocean break on the low cliff to the south, sending up gushes of spume. Although I did comment on the fish I ordered, for it was the best fish I have eaten in a long time. And Michelle tells me her mussels were fine.

ArrietaArrieta

As if life were in agreement that I must return to this island, and stay not for weeks but months, I found a cheap apartment to rent, just metres from where we had sat on the wharf. It was Michelle’s doing. She wanted to check out the clothes in a boutique nearby, and as she browsed I took the chance to speak Spanish to the owner. How glad I am that I did! The woman spoke slowly and encouraged my efforts and when I explained my wish she told me of her apartment, of the cost, the location, and I knew that what I have been feeling for so long, a profound sense of belonging, was not an illusion, it was just me following life’s trail, picking up the breadcrumbs.

 

Of the people…?

Yesterday we were up and out of this old farmhouse bright and early. A little cloud on a warm and breezy day, and as we drove down past the saddles of the massif on our way to Arrecife I noticed the swathes of untilled land, land that used to be a checkerboard of haphazard plots of maize, potatoes and especially prickly pear. In the 80s I would see old women in wide brimmed hats in amongst all those spines, as they plucked off the beetles for cochineal. No more.

The road is long and mostly straight, gone the hair pins, the meandering, the character. A road that bypasses the villages of Mala and Guatiza. A road determined to take drivers to the sprawl that now is Tahiche, and on down to the capital with its super-fast arc of ring road taking traffic to the tourist hubs of Puerto del Carmen and Playa Blanca in the south, and Costa Teguise immediately to the north.

We were heading to the port. An unusual choice perhaps, but it is also the site of the Castillo de San Jose and the museo of contemporary international art, one of a long list of sites for the sequel to The Drago Tree.

Arrecife

The port and surrounds, as anticipated, comprises numerous large concrete storage tanks, a power station (oil fired), a desal plant, containers stacked high in a low row along the waterfront, factories, warehouses, the whole drab grey-white of it set against the undulating sea. Scarcely worth a photo.

Arrecife

The castle, set amidst this scene, is one of three located on the sea front, built to ward off pirates. A small solid building, imposing, with a small dry moat in front and turrets on each corner. A building tucked back from the street and easily missed. A building no tourist would come across except by accident, or through the determination of the lover of fine art. In other words, not at all the sort of place of interest to the average tourist the island attracts. Besides, the other two forts, located along Arrecife’s promenade, are far better suited to tourist sensibilities.

Still, whoever commissioned the fort renovations was determined to create a sense of grandeur and importance, a place worthy of the high art it houses perhaps. The quick look I took inside confirmed the fort to be a remarkable setting for a gallery. The long and low first room, with its rounded arched ceiling, the steep stairs leading to chambers above and below, the slits in the thick walls, windowed – it had an air of secrecy, of low whispers. And it was empty.

Carved into the low cliff below is a restaurant, accessed via a curving flight of cobbled steps flanked by basalt boulders and plantings of succulents in deep picon.

Arrecife

We decided to sample the food, which proved good. And as we sat in front of a wall of glass, staring out at the containers on the waterfront, the buildings on the dock, I wondered what sort of people came here. Men in suits. This was a place for private conversations. A place from which to observe the docklands and not a pretty view. A place away from the noise and bustle of Arrecife. A hidden place away from the people. Not a place for tourists. Not a place for the peasant farmer plucking beetles off her prickly pear. And not a place for us.

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And the wind it blows

Well I cried on touchdown. It was the sight of the barren forms of the mountains of Los Ajaches, Lanzarote’s southern massif, and the villages of La Quemada then Puerto Calero coming into view, then the sprawling mass of white cubes that is Puerto del Carmen and the villages in its hinterland. Michelle had the window seat so didn’t notice my tears, but the woman seated to my right, who had been reading a Joanna Harris all flight, couldn’t have missed them. So I turned to her and said, ‘It’s my age.’

Lanzarote

I hadn’t spoken to Bernie for the duration of the 4 hour flight from Gatwick, but once she had put down her book, I struck up a conversation, asking her where she was staying and the like. When she returned the inquiry, I hesitated. But the moment I mentioned I was an author and that I had written a novel, The Drago Tree, set on the island, she took note of my name and the title and said she would buy my book straight away. Thanks Bernie!

I didn’t tell Bernie that Michelle was my publisher. That she was so inspired by The Drago Tree she’d come with me from Australia, a country where almost no one has heard of Lanzarote, to see the island for herself. It would have sounded like bragging. But Michelle has given my book the greatest endorsement any author can hope for, prepared to travel all that way with a woman she’d never met before, to see for herself why Lanzarote is so special.

Michelle designated herself as driver. What a relief! I’m a good navigator so we managed to find our way round the capital, Arrecife, and on to the northern road with ease. And I could take in the mountains, the calderas, the ocean. The first thing that struck me was the size of the calderas, made all the greater by their closeness, something lost in a photograph. When I was researching for The Drago Tree I’d spend many hours touring the island on Google maps, dredging up memories of when I lived here more than two decades before. But I could never capture that elusive depth of field. Many times on that drive north I wanted us to pull over so I could be still and stare and stare and stare. But we needed food, so we pressed on.

Lanzarote

According to my Internet searches all the supermarkets are closed on Sundays save for those in the tourist south. And since we had driven past all of that and were in open country, our only hope seemed to be a petrol station for some basic supplies. And we hoped to find something open before we reached our destination, a farmhouse on the very edge of the village of Máguez.

When we neared the fishing village of Arrieta, I suggested we take a look. And there on the corner of the main road in, was an open supermarket! And down a narrow alley, the ocean…

Lanzarote

Parking was fun, Michelle forced to drive down the narrow streets so typical of Lanzarote, bereft of pavements and lined with low-rise dwellings, all whitewashed. She was doing well, having mastered the gear box, the indicators, the strangeness of finding herself on the wrong right side of the road.

Stepping out of the car and breathing in the cool ocean air, I could scarcely believe I was here.  I was consumed with a sense of familiarity and belonging, which is hardly surprising since I’ve carried the island around inside me ever since I first visited in January 1988. Back then I fell instantly in love and by November of that year, I was living here.

Arrieta hasn’t changed that much and I knew my way around. The supermarket was well-stocked and had several aisles and a deli at the back. We bought locally grown produce, cheese, bacon cut to order on a meat slicer, wine, both local and Spanish, and other bits and pieces. It was all so inexpensive, so familiar to me. Atun (tuna backwards), champu (if you don’t know what that is, I can’t help you), leche semidesnatada (nata is cream), the whole experience of intuiting meaning came back to me. And my sense of belonging grew all the stronger.

At the checkout I tried out my Spanish, with my usual apologetic caveat about having not spoken the language for twenty-six years. Imagine the thrill when the woman smiled and chatted and I understood and she saw that I did, and we had a conversation. At the end she told me there was nothing wrong with the way I spoke. And there I stood; I’d come home.

I’ve come home to the mountains, the ocean, the wind, the ever present wind, to the picón, the lava, the buildings and the people.

We loaded up the car and headed up the steep sided valley to the little plateau nestled in the mountains, the location of Haría, and Máguez. More narrow streets, this time a warren, but with the caldera of La Corona ever present in the north, it was easy to find our way.

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It was when we opened the front door we both knew it had been more than worth the trek, not only across the globe, but the island too, for the house we are renting for the next few weeks is magnificent. Ten foot ceilings, walls of stone two foot thick, spacious rooms, and just for us.

Lanzarote villa

So I’m seated here at the large table, with Michelle opposite, the tin of Chocodates Michelle bought in Dubai open between us, with the cool wind howling through the shutters, the scudding clouds releasing flurries of light rain, with all of our two week stay ahead of us, happy and fulfilled. Yet already with an ache in my heart, knowing that once again, I’ll have to leave.

taking flight

canary-islandsTomorrow begins a grand adventure, although it feels like it has already begun. I am flying to Lanzarote, Canary Islands after a twenty-six year absence, and I will be accompanied by my publisher, Michelle Lovi.

And  I have only met her once.

It is hard to say when this journey began. I could say it was the day I left my sleepy little village for Melbourne, a ten hour bus ride. But that is a trek I have done many times. Better to say  this adventure had it’s beginnings back in 2013 when I conceived an idea for a book that would be set entirely on Lanzarote. That idea turned into The Drago Tree, a tragi-comic romance released by Odyssey Books in September 2015.

Canary Islands

The novel has become my wings. I had been hinting on social media that I would love to return but it seemed like a pipe dream. After all, I hadn’t managed to visit after I left in 1990. Besides, I knew privately that I would never travel alone. I’m just not cut out for it. Months passed and The Drago Tree was launched. Then one day I posted how much I yearned to go back and I received a message from Michelle. It said, “Can I come?”

At first I thought she wasn’t serious. I said, “Yeah sure,” to be polite.

Two weeks later she repeated the question, which wasn’t a question at all. It was an offer of companionship and even though I had only met her the once, I wasn’t about to pass it up. Besides, Michelle is my publisher – what an honour that is! – and she has a sweet manner to boot. Perfect.

So we set a date and booked the flights and I have been saving my pennies ever since.

Tomorrow we fly to London. A couple of days later we will be on Lanzarote. And our adventure will begin. But of course it already has…

I will be blogging this special journey with lots of photos. My first ever travel diary. Travel with us if you wish and experience, albeit second hand, why Lanzarote is such an extraordinary island.

 

Lanzarote: the fulcrum of an empire

The history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas upon the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, pivots on an earlier conquest, that of Lanzarote and the Canary Islands.

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Sailing is largely dependent on ocean currents. The Canary current sweeps down from Spain and Portugal along the West African coast, until it reaches the Equatorial current and shoots off into the Atlantic all the way to South America. Lanzarote is the first island in that current’s path.

Lanzarote had long been favoured by marauding Spanish adventurers covetous of the profits procured from dyes and slaves, when, in 1402, Norman knight and ambitious conqueror, Jean de Bethencourt left La Rochelle with Gadifer de Salle and a retinue of men-at-arms. Bethencourt and Gadifer were determined to take possession of the “Fortunate Islands” on behalf of any Kingdom willing to strike a good deal. Following in the tradition of Church-sanctioned conquest, they took with them two priests, Pierre Bontier and Jen Le Verrier, who documented the conquest in a journal that would later become, The Canarian.

And in The Canarian the priests depict Lanzarote as wooded with brushwood, olives and higuerilla. There were natural springs in the foothills of the mountains. There were plains and broad valleys of tillable land. And plenty of rocks to build shelter. And a small and amenable indigenous tribe, (later known as los Conejeros, or Guanches). 

After ‘subduing’ with empty promises the tribal leader, King Guadarfia, Bethencourt sailed back to Cadiz to strike a deal with Henry III of Castile that would make him conqueror and owner of all the islands.

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Bethencourt was a greedy opportunist who knew the islands would bring ample wealth. He’d been keen to acquire the blue dye of the orchilla that clung assiduously to the malpais, and the sanguine sap of the drago trees, for use in his mills back in France.

After much betrayal, treachery and a series of attacks and counter attacks worthy of a Johnny Depp movie, King Guadarfia was a hero defeated. When Bethencourt returned with provisions, men and arms, and of course his permission by King Henry III to conquer all the Fortunate Islands in the name of Castile, Guardafia and his people were worn out and demoralised.

Bethencourt returned to a hero’s welcome. According to the priests, the natives surrendered and were duly baptised. At this point the priests claimed that all present had rejoiced, the heathens brought to salvation at last and a legitimate society born on this beleaguered land.

Of course the priests were biased. Guadarfia had no choice but convert or die.

The stage was set for a later conquest, that of the Americas. Lanzarote was the trading post. Ships laden with gold and silver and other treasures  would put in to harbour en route to Spain, and so began a new wave of piracy.

We’d know a whole lot more about Lanzarote had the island’s official records not been destroyed in 1586, when renegade Jan Janz – Dutch privateer taught by the infamous Red Beards, turned Algerian pirate, Morato Arráez – went on a bloody carnal rampage.

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Based on extensive research for The Drago Tree